Publications, opinions, and speeches
Poverty is constructed – it can be un-constructed
Published on 25/04/2016
In 1971, Senator David Croll chaired a Senate inquiry into poverty and his report opened with this observation: “The poor do not choose poverty. It is at once their affliction and our national shame.” Forty-five years later those words still ring true.
While poverty is not a choice for those who experience it, it is in fact a choice that we make as a society. Poverty is not an inevitability, it is constructed by the economic and social policies we choose, by which voices we choose to listen to, and by which rights we choose to support and which rights we choose to ignore. It is constructed by the choice we make about how well we fund the instruments we create to counter poverty, the safety net of public income supports.
And just as poverty is constructed by the barriers that we reinforce and the rights that we fail to support, poverty can be un-constructed by our choices to protect the inherent human rights of people to access good housing, health, nutrition and work.
We have made real progress over time at building systems that help to protect these rights. Major portions of our social safety net were put in place by governments at different levels and of different stripes during the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s. We created supports for farmers, for unemployed workers, for children and parents, for seniors, for people living with disabilities.
Most of these programs are designed and work well. They get supports to the people who need them, they tend to work through large public systems like the tax system, and they work at scale.
We know where success has occurred. Investments in the Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement led to dramatic declines in poverty among seniors, particularly for single seniors whose experience of poverty was the most dire. The Canada Child Tax Benefit led to a 40% decline in child poverty, and the new Canada Child Benefit will lift another 300,000 children out of poverty (although, as pointed out elsewhere, it needs to be fully indexed to inflation).
However, if these instruments are so good, why aren’t the results better? Well, they are mostly underfunded, falling short of the commitment necessary to truly break down the conditions that create poverty. The Working Income Tax Benefit, for example, which supplements the income of working people with very low incomes, is currently funded at less than 25% of the target. If we paid attention to the proper design and full funding of these instruments, poverty would begin to crumble. We have also failed to bridge the gaps in our safety net that trap some people in poverty, whether it means access to essential medicines, dental care, or affordable child care.
There are the voices who say we can’t afford to fund these programs fully, or to build the remaining systems that ensure that all people in this country can have the decent life they deserve. We have been stuck inside a narrative of scarcity and insufficiency that is laughable in such a rich nation, one of the most blessed places in the history of humanity. We squander private and public money at will. In the public realm alone we can find savings by avoiding hospital and shelter stays through supportive housing, for example, or through a criminal justice system that currently incarcerates young people unnecessarily and expensively.
Taking these steps to address the systems that create and perpetuate poverty is not only sound public policy, it is also a matter of respecting our fundamental rights. Canada has of course codified these rights in our Bill of Rights and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter provides robust legal protection of political and civil rights, things like free speech, voting and fair trials.
We have also made commitments in international agreements, including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which incidentally was drafted by Canadian John Humphrey, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These agreements further obligate all governments in Canada — federal, provincial, territorial and local — to protect not only these civil rights but also economic and social rights, including access to work and fair pay, and to health, nutrition and good housing.
By signing on to these agreements, our governments acknowledged their obligation to protect these rights to the extent of “all available resources.” Choosing “not to afford” to meet these obligations is a choice as a society to ignore these rights and to continue to construct and perpetuate poverty. Of course, there is a test of reasonableness, but we have an obligation to put in place the sound fiscal policies that will allow us to protect rights by choosing not to perpetuate poverty, but to break it down.
So, for example, if there is deteriorating public housing stock that is unhealthy or unsafe, it must be fixed. If children are going to school hungry, they must be fed. If workers are sick, they should have access to sick pay. We have chosen to ignore our commitments to protecting human rights. We have an obligation to reverse that course.